The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World
Laura J. Snyder
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The Philosophical Breakfast Club recounts the life and work of four men who met as students at Cambridge University: Charles Babbage, John Herschel, William Whewell, and Richard Jones. Recognizing that they shared a love of science (as well as good food and drink) they began to meet on Sunday mornings to talk about the state of science in Britain and the world at large. Inspired by the great 17th century scientific reformer and political figure Francis Bacon—another former student of Cambridge—the Philosophical Breakfast Club plotted to bring about a new scientific revolution. And to a remarkable extent, they succeeded, even in ways they never intended.
Historian of science and philosopher Laura J. Snyder exposes the political passions, religious impulses, friendships, rivalries, and love of knowledge—and power—that drove these extraordinary men. Whewell (who not only invented the word “scientist,” but also founded the fields of crystallography, mathematical economics, and the science of tides), Babbage (a mathematical genius who invented the modern computer), Herschel (who mapped the skies of the Southern Hemisphere and contributed to the invention of photography), and Jones (a curate who shaped the science of economics) were at the vanguard of the modernization of science.
This absorbing narrative of people, science and ideas chronicles the intellectual revolution inaugurated by these men, one that continues to mold our understanding of the world around us and of our place within it. Drawing upon the voluminous correspondence between the four men over the fifty years of their work, Laura J. Snyder shows how friendship worked to spur the men on to greater accomplishments, and how it enabled them to transform science and help create the modern world.
discouraging circumstances would not have prevented you from publishing the results of a theory of which you entertained no doubt.” With Babbage’s engine, making the calculations would have been transformed into a straightforward matter, removing all source of error, and convincing others easily of the accuracy of the conclusions.37 Adams was inclined to agree. “It would be difficult,” he sighed, “to overestimate the value of such a machine.”38 BABBAGE’S MIND was on his calculating machines,
Philosophical Breakfast Club, Maxwell kept an eye open for practical results of his researches, especially those that could improve the lives of others. In one of his groundbreaking papers on the causes of color blindness, Maxwell reported that after he completed his experiments, he made one of his experimental subjects “a pair of spectacles, with one eye-glass red and the other green.” The subject, “Mr. X.,” was intending to wear them in order to gain the habit of discriminating red from green
tutors, arriving a little before eight. The classes, presorted by the Acts of the year before, sat together at different tables: first and second classes, third and fourth, fifth and sixth. Whewell, as all knew, was in the first class; from here the first and second wranglers would undoubtedly emerge. The men were examined on mathematics for one hour, followed by a short break. The examining continued again from 9:30 to 11:00 a.m., from 1:00 to 2:00 p.m., and from 2:00 to 3:00 p.m. Exhausted, the
Harrison designed a clock that could keep time on a long sea voyage, an invention that seemed to solve the longitude problem. But the Harrison chronometer was incredibly expensive to produce, and it was not until 1840 or later that most British ships carried one. Until then, the older method of lunar distances was routinely used to calculate the difference between Greenwich Time and local time.14 A navigator would use a sextant to measure the angle between the moon and a star (this was taking a
which it calculated. In like manner does God impress His creation with laws, laws that have built into them future alterations in their patterns. God’s omnipotence entails that He can foretell what causes will be needed to bring about the effects He desires; God does not need to intervene each and every time some new cause is required. To think this is to burden God with our own infirmities, the limitations of our own nature. Miracles are not cases of intercession of God outside the normal laws